Once I had laid the flowers on the place where Roger had been buried, whether the exact spot or not seemed not to matter so very much, I felt I had come to a place where I could put a bookmark. I laid the whole project down and went off to North Carolina to help put together my daughter’s wedding. Although I brought the book with me, and a laptop computer for writing, I found myself in a different enough space that I didn’t do any work on it at all. I had far more pressing things to attend to.
At the end of the three weeks’ visit, the night of the wedding actually, I began to tell an old friend of my new son-in-law’s family about this ‘project’ and found myself getting both of us truly swept up in it. I found myself looking forward to getting back to Beacon and continuing.
I figured my mother’s inheritance money would be waiting for me as would the opportunity, since I had made the DAR ladies such a SPLENDID proposal, to become the caretaker at the Brett Homestead. Neither of those things happened. It seems that the New Regent agreed to pass my proposal on to the Board, but she could pretty well bet that they would take their typically HIGHLY conservative route and choose to keep everything the way it was. She added: “So unless you know something that I don’t, the present caretaker will be staying for the length of his contract.”
I was devastated. They have NO FUNDS for caring for the gardens and I had just offered to DO that for the SAME ‘price’ that they’re paying this young man to NOT do it???? I was willing to do it all for just the roof over my head. I was truly flabbergasted.
I found myself hard-pressed to gear up to the level of obsession with which I searched for Roger’s grave. I did spend an afternoon going through everything at the Beacon Library Local History room, where I finally read the Alice Crary Sutcliffe book. It was interesting how I simply could not stay interested past the point where Catharyna dies. I need to create HER. THEN I’ll deal with what came after. There were two things that struck me in the Sutcliffe book. One was perhaps just a musing on Alice’s part about how surely Catharyna mourned deeply for the death of her youngest son, Rivery, as she buried him IN THE FOREST. I could only assume that Rivery is buried in the same place as Roger and their first son, Thomas, who died of an illness when he was only nine.
The other thing that tugged on me was Alice describing going out into MADAM BRETT’s garden and listing the plants there – a Trumpet Vine and “Seven Sisters” roses in particular. I was MAD to make sure those things are growing on the property, even if the formal garden is the Marion Brinkerhoff Foster garden. I am truly puzzled as to why the Fosters are being honored so, since they were the ones ready to give the house to the wrecking ball simply because they didn’t WANT it anymore. It was the historic preservation people in Beacon who got the attention of the DAR to buy the house and preserve it.
Another thing I found at the library in Beacon was an article written for Ms Magazine back in the early 70’s praising Catharyna Brett as a champion of businesswomen. However this entire article painted Roger, dear Lieutenant Roger of the Royal Navy, as a gold-digging FOOL who just FELL off some boat. I was INCENSED!!! That’s my HUSBAND they’re talking about! (oops!) I ‘knew’ it wasn’t true. they had painted Roger unfairly. He was a fine man, I’m sure of that, and Catharyna loved him dearly.
Later, I got a book out of the Fishkill Library about the Sloops of the Hudson River. I needed to see just how big a boom might have been at the time. Good God, of COURSE it would have killed him if it had swung around suddenly. the boom was more than half the length of the entire boat. If a fierce wind sent it swinging, absolutely.
But now my obsession is with how Rivery dies.
I found myself, suddenly one morning, sitting down and beginning to write the ‘script’ for this live portrayal. I started out with the actual performance in mind, the setting being myself sitting by her huge fireplace in the original kitchen, with a small audience close at hand and perhaps half an hour to tell the whole amazing story.
So I began it as a very personable, simple narrative. but as I wrote, I suppose one could say it began to get away from me, or more accurately it began to run away WITH me. I just let my fingers type where they wished, and the next thing I knew, entire conversations were evolving among these people. I was in quite the altered state and I typed through tears at the keyboard as I watched what came across my screen:
My name is Catharyna Rombout Brett and I lived here, in this house, a very, VERY long time ago. let me see…..Three Hundred Years ago, I was….yes, 14 years old, living in New Amsterdam as it was called earlier, what you call New York City now. My, my, it was EVER so lovely back then, especially the side of Manhattan Island we lived on. I think you all call it Battery Park now?
Well, back then, I lived in a wonderful, big house with my 7 half-brothers and half-sisters on what is now the corner of Broadway and Rector St. Behind out house was the most wonderful peach orchard that went all the way to the River. When I was much younger, I would play there all the time. I had a special rock I sat on, and I so loved to watch the water change and move. I always wondered what was up that huge River, beyond where I could see.
The first time I went to the River all alone was after my Papa died. I was only 4 years old and not allowed to go all the way to the River by myself, but I was very sad, and felt very alone and the River comforted me. You see, I was the only child of my Papa who had lived. My real brother and sister both died when they were very little (these things happened all the time back then) and all my other older brothers and sisters came from other Papas. But Francis Rombout was just MY Papa and I missed him so terribly. I needed some place to cry. Mama was very cross when she couldn’t find me for so long, and thought I’d run away.
But three hundred years ago, I was a young lady, in beautiful dresses, going to wonderful parties and dinners and church gatherings and it became hard to find time to go to the River just to sit and dream….
We even spent time at the Governor’s mansion, some of my sisters and I. My Papa was the Mayor of New Amsterdam back in 1679. In a way, we were Ladies in Waiting to Lady Cornbury, the Governor’s wife. She was such an ODD woman! Did you know, that if she came to visit your house, she would simply TAKE anything that caught her fancy? You should have seen the way we would HIDE things if we knew she was coming. Poor thing, she was so very sickly, she died when she was only 34 years old.
But it was during those years, when we would spend time at the governor’s parties, that I met my Roger. Lieutenant Roger Thomas Brett of the Royal Navy. I didn’t fall in love with him right away, I really didn’t! I just watched him, and spoke to him little, and wondered why he had never married at his age. He was lovely to dance with and I did so enjoy his tales of being on the big ships out at sea, and of England and of being in the Navy. But he also listened to me when I spoke, and I cannot say that was true of many of the men there. I suppose it rather surprised me when I realized that I had fallen deeply in love with him. He was a very good man, and a solid man, and by the time I was sixteen, we were married.
We both moved into my mother’s house, there was plenty of room, as my older siblings kept getting married and going out on their own. But when Mama died, and her will was read, she chose to leave me only nine pence – a few coins. Everything else that she had was divided between her six OTHER children from her two OTHER marriages, so none of them had very much either.
What I had, from my Papa, was an enormous piece of land, twenty-eight THOUSAND acres, far away up the Hudson River. But Roger and I didn’t even have the money to MOVE up there, much less build a house, and we couldn’t afford to keep up Mama’s house with all the servants, and by the time Mama died, our first son, Thomas had been born. I didn’t know WHAT we were going to do.
I worried….and Roger THOUGHT. Roger was very smart, and careful and solid. He did what needed to be done. We mortgaged the house on Broadway so we could buy supplies, Roger made sure we knew what part of the Rombout Patent was ours, and oh my…….UP the River we went.
I remember being so excited and so scared at the same time, and I remember clinging to the sleeve of his deep blue jacket. Somehow, Roger was MORE solid on a boat than on dry land. Do you know how long it took to travel from New York up to our property by boat? SOMEtimes as little as FIVE hours if the wind was good.
By 1708, Roger was making that trip up and down the river with men and supplies, building a grist mill and a small house for us. By then, Thomas was 3, Francis was 1 and I was pregnant with Robert!
We arrived late in the year of 1708. Dear me it was different from New york, and I was so very grateful for Peter DuBois and his wife who were our only neighbors. They had lived near Denning’s Point even before we arrived. They were squatters, had just come and settled, but that was fine with us. They were good company and I gave Peter a Life Lease to the land he lived on. Peter raised a fine, large family, helped us to build the mill and the house and was so valuable to everyone who came to live up here. He was our surveyor, a merchant (did you know he used to WALK to New York from up here?), he was a brewer, a cooper and of course, a sloopman. Our son Francis married one of the DuBois girls, Catherine.
And so, in 1709, we built THIS house. People often asked why we didn’t build it RIGHT on the River. Because we KNEW the River and we knew that at times….she can turn truly mean. Sometimes her winds can just push you away. So Roger first thought we should set the house back a bit and when I first set foot on THIS land, I knew he was right.
My Papa was a Walloon. Ever hear of them? He was a Protestant who fled from Holland to this country in 1653. His people spoke Flemish instead of true Dutch and even earlier, when the very first Walloonse arrived her in 1624, they called it New Netherland. Well, these folks knew wondrous things about land, and rocks and minerals; they even built themselves underground houses when they first arrived. My Papa always reminded me that I was part Walloon and could probably find water underground without a rod. I knew what he meant when I first stood on this land. Perhaps that is why this house stands these nearly 300 years later. (well that, and the good DAR ladies saving it from becoming a Supermarket!)
When we first built this house, it had only 4 rooms on this ground floor, there was a kitchen down in the cellar, and the second floor was unfinished. Every one of my descendants who has lived here for 200 more years has made additions and changes to suit the families they raised here. At one point, the front door was facing Fishkill Creek, but later, as the city of Beacon began to grow out THAT way….they turned it around.
But Robert was born that year in 1709, and all of us – roger, myself, Thomas, Francis, baby Robert and out three servants all moved in just in time to celebrate our first Christmas together here.
We DID have slaves. I know that seems terrible to you all now, but that’s the way life was back then. We were good to them and they helped us so much. Samuel was Roger’s manservant and Molly and Coban helped me and the boys.
I am so very glad that Molly was with me that day two years later when Roger and I were to return home from New York on the Sloop. We’d left the boys home with Coban and I was very, VERY pregnant with my fourth child. I remember lying in the cabin of the sloop, listening to the seagulls and feeling the waves rocking and rocking the boat. The rocking was so soothing I must not have felt the contractions starting until the pain began. At first I was terrified that this baby was coming ON THE BOAT!
Roger was so calm. God bless him, and Molly and Samuel hopped right to it as best they could. I remember Molly’s voice saying “Let the River help you, Mistress Brett, let the River help you”. The rocking of the boat did soothe me between the pains and I prayed as hard as I could that the River help me have a healthy baby.
The Mighty Hudson as my midwife – I cried out into her wind, and gave the pain to her depths and pushed out my beautiful baby into her waiting arms. And the River rocked us both when it was done – rocked us BOTH.
Molly went out to get Roger who rushed in and took my hand and kissed me and kissed me with tears in his eyes. We both looked down at this beautiful child. This beautiful, magical RiverChild.
I laughed and said, “We should call him Rivery.”
Roger laughed, “We SHOULD call him Rivery!”
And Rivery it was. My beautiful boy, born in the middle of the Hudson River.
How surprised the boys were when we walked in that day with this tiny new baby wrapped in nothing but Molly’s shawl. How many times I had to explain to Robert that we had not BOUGHT him in New York City.
So. Now there were four boys, and us, and new people moving up to our land. I let roger handle the business of running the Mill, and leasing pieces of land to keep the money coming in as I rather had my hands full. And thank the Lord for Molly and Coban, I don’t know HOW I could have managed without them. And Thomas always so sick, poor dear, he just never WAS strong and healthy like the other boys.
The Wappinger Indians were dear and gentle people and good friends of ours. I always told them they could live on our land, undisturbed, just as my Papa had done. The boys played with the Indian children whenever we were invited to go to their villages. They even gave us some of their medicines that winter when Thomas had the fever.
He just wasn’t strong enough to fight it. The other boys had it too, but they got well. Thomas didn’t. He grew weaker and weaker and wouldn’t eat and he died when he was only nine. Roger tried so hard not to let the boys see him cry. I think I cried for both of us. And Roger told me I shouldn’t cry so, for the boys’ sake…”The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. In His WISDOM…” It was time for Thomas to go.
I swore I would never understand why it’s ever time for ANY child to go, but so many people lost children back then, and so often much younger than Thomas. We buried him in our little family plot down where South Street and Tioranda and Newlin’s Mill Rd all meet now. It was very sad and I know the other boys were a little scared. Roger was so good with them. I could hardly contain my grief.
For the next four years, everything GREW. The boys all GREW, the community GREW, and we had begun to actually SELL our land outright instead of just leasing it. When folks only leased the land, by the law, they could not hand it down to their descendants, because they didn’t OWN it. This caused some folks to not build things or plant big orchards, because the land wasn’t theirs and that seemed wrong. When we sold the farms outright, the people on them seemed so much happier and worked so much harder and really felt like it was HOME.
And jus tEVERYone came to the Mill. folks from across the River, the Indians would come bringing furs and things to trade for meal, there was always someone to talk to down at the Mill. Live was very good.
Although we released the mortgage on the house in NYCity, Roger often went up and down the River to buy things and sell produce for us and bring back news. It was in June of 1718 when he and Samuel went down on the sloop loaded up with our first spring crops. I didn’t go with him as there was SO much to do here at home.
Roger and Samuel were coming back, the next day, when one of those STORMS suddenly blew up the way the Hudson does sometimes. They had made it JUST to the mouth of Fishkill Creek. Samuel told me the sky just turned BLACK and the winds began to scream and everything on the sloop was crashing around and he HEARD a sound in the midst of all this and turned around to see the huge boom of the sloop strike Roger and knock him into the water. Roger was a GOOD seaman, a VERY good seaman, but in a storm like that, the boom can swing around SO suddenly…..
My Roger drowned that day.
Samuel tried and tried, but he could not find Rogers body until the days later when it washed up on the shore. I did not sleep one bit thoses nights. I’ve never prayed so hard in all my life. I’m a devout Christian woman, but that night I prayed to the River itself to please, PLEASE give me my Roger back. DON’T take him from me.
I’ve never seen a man cry the way Samuel did that day. Nor did I ever suspect that my heart could BREAK the way it did that day. The River that birthed my baby had taken my husband. Left me alone with three small boys and all this land, and this mill and all these things I depended on Roger for. But most of all it took the one man I ever loved or ever would love.
I hated the River after that. I stayed away from it. there was no comfort for me there. I tried to find my comfort in Church. I tried and tried to find “His WISDOM” that Roger spoke of after Thomas died. I tried to be strong for my boys. Everyone was telling me to just pack up and move back to New York City.
I looked around at all we had, this whole community, all the people who depended on us, all the things Roger was brave enough to create, and I heard Roger’s voice when we first thought about moving up the River – when we realized we had NOTHING but that land.
I remembered Roger saying, “Well, what do we do NOW?”
It made me laugh then, as he truly expected an answer from SOMEwhere. I remember so clearly the first day we set foot on our land. Roger took my hand as I stepped out of the boat and said to me, “The land will support us, just as we’re standing on it,” And he said that many more times whenever we found ourselves in financial difficulties. He truly believed it.
I found myself now asking the same question, “What do we do now?” And the answer was clear – “You keep ON, you keep on.”
And I did. I had George Clarke to help me with the business dealings, and he helped me a great deal, but this was MY land, and I cared greatly for it. One of the things I so admired Roger for was that as he grew to understand and truly enjoy the business of land-dealings, it was always done not for personal gains, but to give these people the opportunity to make a good life. Roger wasn’t just selling off our land, he was building a community and I swore I would continue. Three hundred years later, it breaks my heart to see that in some places, that has NOT continued along this beautiful River.
Now you MUST understand, my running my businesses was unheard of for that time. No woman had any say in business dealings, ever. I suppose Roger spoiled me, LISTENING to me, and allowing me to speak my mind, and I continued to do so. I was very good with numbers, always had been, and I knew how to treat people fairly. I learned these things from my Papa and from the GOOD men he named as my guardians when he died: William Teller, my grandfather on my mother’s side; Peter DeLaNoy, the mayor of New York at that time; Dr Samuel Staats, a New York doctor who had studied medicine in Holland; and Paul Richards, a wealthy wine merchant and proprietor of Long Island vineyards.
In Dutch households, the girls WERE allowed to learn skills and to listen to business dealings. And so, I took the reins of my businesses, I raised my boys, I kept my house and my land and I kept my broken heart deep within my breast and I smiled again.
However, I never did marry again, and that was considered very foolish for that time. No woman remained a widow for more than a few months, especially one with wealth and children to raise. I spent much of my time in the company of men, I was comfortable among them, but I never needed anyone to take Roger’s place, especially if that meant that a new husband would OWN these lands instead of me. I was well-loved for the 15 years we were married and I needed nothing more. Each of my parents was married three times. I would marry but once.
The winter after Roger died, I gave away most of his clothing to the folks who needed it except one jacket – one favorite wool jacket I simply couldn’t part with. There were times, when I would grow so very lonely and miss Roger so terribly, that I would just need to touch the sleeve of that jacket, as I had so many times when he was still here. I remember clinging to that sleeve the very first time we sailed up the Hudson to our new home, but Roger’s arm was around me.
Roger died in June of 1718. Rivery was only 6, Robert 9, Francis 11. They did love their father so. He called them Admiral, Captain and Sailor, according to their ages. Once, we both stopped dead in our tracks when Roger went down the roster only to have Francis ask, “What does that make Thomas, Papa?” Roger thought very quickly and said, “the Crown Prince, which has taken him far away.”
And sometimes, I think perhaps we mentioned Rivery’s being born on the River a bit too often, as more than once we’d heard him ANNOUNCE: “I’m Rivery and I was born IN the River!”
Roger would stop him gently with his “Hold on now, there sailor, you’re no Shad fish! You were born ON the River, not IN the River.”
Sometimes I do believe Rivery would make his announcement within earshot of Roger just to get him to recite that answer.
So Roger died in June, and I could not bring myself to sit by the River for the rest of the year. The older two boys felt some fear of the River after their father drowned, but poor little Rivery felt it most of all. The next spring, after a long and very lonely winter, on one of those glorious spring days when everything is waking up, I took the boys for a walk to the River. Rivery would not come, so I allowed him to stay behind with Coban. Molly, Francis, Robert and I went to a favorite spot, where the boys could climb down the rocks and play at the edge of the chilly water a bit. They did what boys do at the River – looked for treasures, and skipped rocks. With Molly watching over them, I sat on my rock and looked out over the water to the barely greening hills on the other side. At first every movement of the water brought back such floods of memories that my heart just ACHED. I thought that perhaps this had been a bad idea.
But with each caress of the waves, the pain in my heart eased. I don’t know how the river does that, but it does. I knew then, that Rivery needs to come and know this. I found myself rocking with the waves ever so slightly and I found myself feeling to be in love. I know Roger is no longer here, but being in love with him is. I left with tears in my eyes AND a smile on my face.
Late the next day, I just asked Rivery to take a walk with me. Not even Molly came with us. Just my little Riverboy and me. We didn’t go straight to the River, we just walked a bit. He is basically a joyous child, always has been, so it breaks my heart all the more to see him still so sad about losing his Papa.
He doesn’t miss a thing, not a bug nor a newly opened flower. He was so busy hopping around that he didn’t even notice that we’d come within view of the River. He stopped and I took his little hand to keep him going. I told him I had a talk with the River yesterday and She wanted to see him. We climbed over the rocks, holding his hand in my one hand and holding my skirt in the other. We sat, and at first he was all curled up, with his arms crossed in his lap.
Finally he threw a stone in the River. Then another. And another. Each throw was angrier than the one before, and though I said nothing, I could see tears welling up in his eyes. Finally he said with all the rage a little boy can summon,
“My Papa drowned in that River! I hate that River!”
He burst into tears with his hands over his face. I pulled him over to me and let him sob his heart out in my skirts. As I rocked him, I pleaded with this River to help me say the right thing. When his tears subsided some, I asked if he remembered what his Papa used to say when he’d tell someone he was born IN the River.
“Papa said I wasn’t a shad fish.”
I nearly laughed in spite of myself. “And what else?”
“Papa said I was born ON the River and not IN it.”
“That’s right. And your Papa was killed ON the River, my sweet boy, not IN it. The boom of the boat killed him.”
Rivery lay with his head in my lap for quite awhile as I stroked his hair and rocked gently. He was looking out over the water. After a bit, without lifting his head, he said simply,
“The River CAUGHT him, Mama.”
I closed my eyes and just let the tears go. I knew he would find his answer. Who knows if it’s true, if Roger could have survived had he not fallen in the water. it didn’t matter. My little boy had an answer that would ease his heart some.
We sat there all the way until the sun went down. We watched that River on the River, that trail of light that grows thinner and deeper and more orange as the sun sets. As soon as the sun dipped below the hills, we got up and hurried back to the house before the sky lost its light too.
I didn’t have to say anything to Molly and Coban and Samuel when we came back, they could see that all was well.
As the years went by, the boys continued to grow, Francis and Robert quite tall like their father, Rivery a bit shorter like me. I schooled them at home as was done for me, we all attended Church each Sunday, and they helped with the farm., Our house seemed always full of people – visitors, people come to the Mill, the Wappinger Indians. Not everyone agreed with my letting the Indians come into my house as they pleased, but they were very gentle and good company and I was so fascinated with the way they could weave and spin and make things differently than we did.
We added a saw mill to the grist mill and I took great satisfaction at how that helped the settlers with their building. I always laughed whenever I heard someone say “All Roads lead to Mistress Brett’s Mill”.
Did you know that NO ONE called me MADAM Brett while I was alive? It was always Mistress Brett and sometimes Widow Brett, but my descendents made me MADAM Brett.
Although I greatly appreciated George Clarke’s help in making land sales when I needed to, after awhile I began to do them entirely on my own. I certainly knew how to do this by now. I made sure that boundaries were clear, and because I found the owning of land to be such a fine, personal, life-building prospect, I made sure that my own wishes for the new owners were added to the dry and boring deeds that were drawn up. At first the men laughed at me, but I stood my ground.
Yes, the years went around and everything grew. The trees we planted were so much taller than they were, there were more boats upon the River, more merchants, more people in the churches.
Two years before Roger died, construction began on the Dutch Reformed Church in the middle of Fishkill. We had donated the land for the church to be built, and it took seven years to complete. We could have put it closer to OUR house or closer to the River, but we had so many friends farther to the north and east, this seemed like a good location. After awhile, folks began to call the road, what you call Route 52, Mistress Brett’s Road as it ran from my house to my church. Going to church was very important to me. VERY important. Before this church was built, I used to cross the Hudson River by canoe to get to the Lutheran Church across the River, back when it was the only Church around.
Somewhere between the Church and the River was all the strength I needed to carry on. There was much to need strength for. Winters were hard, doctors were few, and could only be summoned if someone went to FIND them. When sickness hit, there was always the fear that someone would not survive.
The small children were most at risk, so if you could get them past being eight or nine or so, you felt pretty confident that they’d live to be adults, especially if they were strong and healthy to begin with. So that year, when Francis was 22, Robert was 20 and Rivery was 17…………………………………..
I stopped RIGHT THERE.
I simply would not continue. I realized I was ‘setting up’ the next story to have Rivery die just as Thomas had, but I just don’t buy it. There’s no way. Rivery was STRONG. He wouldn’t just NOT recover from some general illness. And yet, if it had been something DRAMATIC or truly TRAGIC, don’t you think something would have been WRITTEN about it??? This was the most well-known, well-loved, revered woman in the entire area.
Back to the library…The town historian found a hand-written letter, obviously dated MUCH later, that described in relatively horrifying detail how a brother eventually died of lockjaw from merely having fallen on a rusty barrel nail by the other brother who witnessed his death.
But no. While I suppose that’s possible, it STILL doesn’t feel RIGHT………………….